North Carolina's public schools are failing to help thousands of low-income children who have shown they are smart enough to handle advanced work. A Charlotte Observer/(Raleigh) News and Observer investigation scours seven years of data and finds troubling trends.

When parents can’t advocate, who will push this eighth-grade math star to excel?

When Victor Guevara took the SAT in seventh grade, his math scores topped those of the average college-bound senior.

But when Victor started eighth grade at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Albemarle Road Middle School he wasn’t enrolled in Math 1, the high school course that gets middle school students launched on the kind of transcript that will get them into college.

Fortunately, his counselor caught the error and moved him into the advanced math class. She caught it despite the fact that she’s keeping tabs on more than 400 of his classmates, most of whom come from impoverished homes and score below grade level on math and reading exams.

Every year across North Carolina, thousands of students with top math scores who happen to live in low-income households fall off the college track, an investigation by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer reveals. These students are excluded from advanced classes at a much higher rate than their more affluent classmates, leading to more than 9,000 low-income students over six years who were counted out.

So far, Victor remains on track.

In a middle school where 68 percent of seventh-graders failed the math exam last year, he was among 6 percent who scored above grade level. For him, the question isn’t whether he can earn a diploma but whether he can get into a good college and become an engineer.

Victor Guevara in his Math I class at Albemarle Road Middle School. He was assigned there after mistakenly being scheduled for regular eighth-grade math, despite high math scores.

Victor’s parents, who came to the United States from El Salvador before he was born, don’t speak English. His father works in a restaurant and his mother stays home with his younger sister, who has disabilities.

Victorino Guevara said he worries about pushing his son too hard in school. College seems beyond reach on his income.

“Some of these things seem impossible,” Victorino Guevara said in December through an interpreter. “When one is a child you have dreams, but often we don’t have the opportunity to be able to meet those dreams.”

But his mother, Maria Villatoro, has high hopes. “Whatever he says he’s going to do, he’ll do,” she said.

Victor was identified as gifted in elementary school, which got him past the first hurdle that can derail top-scoring students from low-income homes. The state data shows such students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs than middle-class peers with the same scores on state exams. And in CMS, white and Asian elementary students are more than seven times as likely to be labeled gifted as black and Hispanic counterparts.

Gatekeeper to college

In eighth grade his counselor, Adrienne Sowell, got him past the second barrier when she moved him into Math 1, where he can earn his first high school math credit. That’s important: In middle and high school, a lot of sorting takes place that shapes each student’s competitiveness for college.

Maria Villatoro and Victor Guevara at Elon University after he was awarded a medal in seventh grade for his performance on the SAT.

Victor’s grades and test scores made it clear he’s ready for Math 1. When he took the SAT in seventh grade, he scored 540 in math, placing him in the 59th percentile for college-bound seniors. The Duke University Talent Identification Program gave him a medal for his strong showing.

Sowell says students placed in classes that don’t challenge them can end up bored and unmotivated. Victor, she says, is “just phenomenal.”

But scheduling requires lining up classes for hundreds of students – Albemarle Road has more than 1,100 – and some can fall through the cracks.

Some college-bound students have parents keeping an eagle eye on their classes. Victor’s, while supportive, face language barriers and know little about the U.S. education system.

Had he stayed in a regular eighth-grade math class, his chances of becoming an engineer would have shrunk.

Math is the gatekeeper to college, said Braska Williams, the coordinator of the N.C. Math Science Education Network at N.C. State University.

“If you want to go to college, you need to take Math 1 in eighth grade,” Williams said. “Math is sequential. If you fall behind, you are behind.”

Among low-income students who test above grade level in sixth grade but don’t take high school math by eighth grade, only one in 14 go on to take four advanced math courses in high school, the Observer/N&O analysis of state data about 2015 graduates shows.

For those who do start high school math by eighth grade, the numbers are better: two in five.

Albemarle Road Middle School’s Math 1 teacher, Kiara Cox, reviews results of a test with Victor.

And that transcript can be important for getting into college, especially for students majoring in fields such as engineering and technology.

Taking high school math in middle school gives a big boost to scores on the ACT, a test taken by every North Carolina 11th grader and crucial to college admission. Students who take Math 1 before high school score an average of five points higher on the math portion of the ACT than those with the same incomes who don’t, analysis of data from the state Department of Public Instruction shows. The top score is 36.

In fact, the low-income students who take Math 1 in eighth grade, with family incomes below $24,000, outscore the higher-income students who don’t, those with family incomes above $150,000.

Victor is thriving in Math 1, says his teacher, Kiara Cox. During an April review, when students took practice tests to see which skills they might need to work on, it was hard to find any weak spots for Victor.

“You were very close to a perfect score,” Cox told him.

Not always an option

Because he goes to a large middle school, Victor at least had the Math 1 option. Six years ago CMS closed two of its high-poverty, low-performing middle schools and reassigned the students to eight newly merged K-8 schools, where the smaller settings were supposed to boost performance. One trade-off: Some don’t offer Math 1 because so few eighth-graders are ready.

In seventh grade, Victor Guevara's math scores on the SAT were better than the average college-bound senior’s. Will he realize his dream of becoming an engineer?

Denise Watts, the administrator in charge of some of the merged schools, says those schools use regular eighth-grade math classes to get students ready for high school, where they can take Math 1 and still earn enough math credits for college.

Those small schools also lack enough gifted students to qualify for a full-time “talent development” teacher, though they get one at least two days a week. For high-potential students, “the hope is that they get a really good teacher that is able to differentiate, because there’s not going to be a separate class for gifted students,” Watts said.

Six years in, average scores remain low at most of the merged elementary-middle schools in CMS. And top-scoring students often switch schools, leaving even fewer intellectual peers for those who remain behind.

Scoring at or above grade level on state exams “opens up the world of magnet schools, and so that is an opportunity that parents are going to take for their kids,” said Anthony Calloway, principal of Walter G. Byers School, which doesn’t offer Math 1. He’s looking for a way to add the class next year.

Preparing for high school

Victor not only gets academic guidance from his counselor but from volunteers at Central United Methodist Church, who have worked with the family since his older sister, now a senior in high school, was a child.

Louise Woods, a church volunteer and former CMS board member, thought Victor would fare better in a middle school magnet program.

To report this series, The News & Observer acquired seven years of student-level data for the state's 115 school districts and charter schools from the state Department of Public Instruction. Each year, it includes the end-of-grade scores for nearly 700,000 North Carolina elementary and middle-school students and similar data for roughly 455,000 high school students.

This is the same data used by DPI to produce its annual report cards - snapshots about the performance of schools. Our analysis went deeper to compare the experiences of high-scoring students from low-income households with those of their higher-income classmates.

We don't know who the students are. But unique ID numbers allowed us to track the students from year to year and to follow how schools assign those students from class to class.

We found racial disparities among high-scoring students: Among more affluent students, Asians are more likely to be placed in rigorous classes, while black and Hispanic students are less likely. Whites are placed at a rate equal to the state average.

We focused on low-income students, measured by those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Year in and year out, a smaller proportion of low-income third graders who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests get on the track of advanced courses compared to their more affluent classmates. And more of these students slip through the cracks as the years go by.

We focused on math for several reasons: it is sequential, so students who fall behind find it difficult to catch up; measuring math skills is less subjective than areas such as reading and social sciences; and as a student progresses, math scores help determine enrollment in high school classes such as chemistry, biology and physics.

These end-of-grade tests measure achievement and start in the third grade, when students take their first state reading and math exams. Many school districts use other measures, such as aptitude tests and teacher screenings, to decide admission to gifted programs. Some also consider the end-of-grade scores.

The end-of-grade tests aren't a perfect measure, but they're important enough that North Carolina lawmakers and education officials have long used them to shape public policy and spending decisions. We were not able to obtain the results of aptitude tests.

North Carolina's education system has many independent pieces, and often it's not clear just who's in charge.

The General Assembly allocates the money for local schools and writes education law. The State Board of Education sets policy. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction implements these laws and policies. And each of the state's 115 school districts has an elected board, which hires a superintendent to run the schools.

In fact, the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction are squaring off in court to determine just who is in control of the state's education department. This action comes after legislators passed a new law giving more hiring clout to new Superintendent Mark Johnson.

When it comes to programs to push and support gifted students, state law lets local school boards set policy on how to choose children for the programs.

The General Assembly gives each district a gifted supplement tied to the district's enrollment. Many districts supplement that money with local contributions.


Albemarle Road is a neighborhood school that includes an International Baccalaureate magnet program. That magnet starts students on the track for an IB diploma, a globally recognized credential that can be a plus for college admission. Albemarle Road students who are in the magnet and meet academic requirements are guaranteed a spot in East Mecklenburg High’s IB program.

Victor had the grades and test scores for IB. But when Woods asked about enrolling him in eighth grade, they hit an ironic obstacle: He lacked a required world language class. His parents speak Spanish at home and Victor can communicate with them. But he was born in the United States and is most comfortable speaking English.

Sowell, his counselor, didn’t think admission to the middle school magnet was a big issue, especially since Victor takes the same high-level classes that his IB classmates do. But she agreed with the church volunteers that he should apply for a high school magnet.

Sowell favored a small pre-engineering high school on the campus of UNC Charlotte, reasoning that it would give Victor a taste of college and access to tuition-free classes. Woods thought Victor would flourish at East Meck, a racially and economically diverse school in Victor’s neighborhood.

Victor’s parents didn’t weigh in. In December, just before magnet applications opened, Villatoro said she didn’t know much about magnets and found them a bit intimidating: “It seems like the kids in those schools aren’t normal,” she said. “They’re very intelligent.”

Victorino Guevara worried that if Victor needed help, a magnet school might not offer it. “When we fail we get discouraged,” he said. “Victor’s motivated and doing so well.”

Woods took Victor to an open house and helped him apply for the IB program. In March he learned he’d gotten in, and one of the first ninth-grade classes he signed up for is engineering design.

In April, Victor’s parents said they’re enthusiastic about East Meck because it’s so close to their home. They hadn’t been inside, but they considered it a good option for their son.

“He can do it,” his mother said. “If he sees a challenge ahead of him, he’ll step up to the plate.”

Beyond the classroom

For affluent families, summers offer a wealth of opportunities for students to build math, science and technology skills.

Queens University of Charlotte, for instance, offers summer programs for teens in coding, cryptography and game development, at a cost of $850 to $900 a week.

The Duke TIP program, which recognized Victor’s math skill, offers three-week summer sessions in such topics as artificial intelligence, computer programming for engineers and cryptography. The cost is $4,100 to $4,300.

Victor doesn’t sit idle, but he won’t spend his summers in that kind of program. He loves playing trumpet, and the church volunteers are working to get him into a summer band camp. He may help with the younger children at church camp, like he did last year.

During the school year, Woods helped pay for Victor to attend a two-day program on biotechnology and business at Queens.

Woods and Pastor Susan Suarez looked at the Duke TIP camps. But even though the website says the program provides financial aid of up to 90 percent, Woods and Suarez didn’t feel confident that such a commitment was realistic.

Most of the Duke camps are out of state, and travel is an obstacle, Suarez said.

“I don’t know that your folks would let you go away for three weeks,” she told Victor. “Yet.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms


Counted Out

Sunday: Why have smart, low-income students been excluded from advanced classes?

Today: When parents can’t advocate, who will push this eighth-grade math star to excel?

Tuesday: Program in Watauga County helps low-income but gifted students succeed

Wednesday: 5 ways to help bright low-income students